No Pain, No Gain: Why Struggling is Important

Alix Spiegel of NPR writes:

“I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.

via Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning : Shots – Health News : NPR.

In general, I agree with the article’s premise that American students see struggle as a sign of weakness and low intelligence, rather than something to work through. Instead of a problem to solve, American students have an ingrained learned helplessness. Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, addresses this cultural problem by dividing the worldview on intelligence into two camps: fixed and malleable. The fixed intelligence camp believes that you are either good at something or you are not; you either know it or you don’t. The malleable intelligence mindset believes, instead, that knowledge is gained, not innate or fixed. Every student can learn algebra or Latin or how to write well. However, the “no pain, no gain” rule applies here. Spiegel affirms this difference of mindsets, based on his interviews with a professor at Brown University, Jin Li, who has studied Eastern and Western beliefs of education:

 “The idea of intelligence is believed in the West as a cause,” Li explains. “She is telling him that there is something in him, in his mind, that enables him to do what he does.” But in many Asian cultures, academic excellence isn’t linked with intelligence in the same way. “It resides in what they do, not who they are, what they are born with.”

In other words, Western cultures generally believe in the fixed mindset of learning, whereas Asian cultures believe in the malleable theory of learning. Is it possible to effect change in the way we think about learning and how we teach? According to Spiegel’s conclusion, it is. Jim Stigler of UCLA asserts:

In the Japanese classrooms that he’s studied, teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach. Then, once the task is mastered, the teachers actively point out that the student was able to accomplish it through hard work and struggle.

“And I just think that especially in schools, we don’t create enough of those experiences, and then we don’t point them out clearly enough.”

Well said, Jim Stigler. However, I’d also add that we need to prepare our students and families for this struggle and its benefits. Parental instinct to protect children from harm is natural, but conflict and struggle are just as natural a part of life. It’s okay if a student does poorly on a quiz and has to learn how to take a test or study more effectively for one. At such times, parental intervention robs the student of any learning opportunity and the cycle will only be repeated at a later time. Instead, teaching him to self-advocate and take responsibility for his performance are skills that will contribute more to his self-worth and confidence down the road. Show me a student who has not struggled at something and I will show you an adult who has done well in school but may not do well in life.

Instead, teachers and families must find ways to step back and allow the student to become independent. Yes, we should ensure a safety net, however not rush to their side to fix every hurt either. If you are a parent, how do you guard against stepping into every conflict? How do you decide when to step in and when to step back? And if you are an educator, how can the administration and parents support your efforts to create meaningful experiences for your students that will probably involve some struggles along the way? Please use the comments section to note your thoughts!


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